Michelle Obama: No comment on Italian leader's escapades

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 9, 2009 

Italian Equal Opportunities Minister Mara Carfagna visit at the Capitoline Museums in Rome.

AP PHOTO/DOMENICO STINELLIS

L'AQUILA, Italy — Despite a request for a wives' boycott of this week's G-8 summit to protest the personal behavior of the Italian prime minister, first lady Michelle Obama and other spouses came as planned — and found themselves touring with a former topless model-turned-government minister filling in as the official hostess for the prime minister's soon-to-be ex-wife.

The first ladies toured earthquake damage in L'Aquila Thursday with their official hostess, Mara Carfagna, a former model named by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to be his equal opportunities minister and then to fill in as hostess this week because his wife is divorcing him.

Obama didn't comment on the Berlusconi scandal.

Nor did the other spouses touring with Carfagna, a group of about 50 that included Britiain's Sarah Brown, India's Gursharan Kaur, Sweden's Filippa Reinfeldt and South Africa's Nompumelelo Ntuli.

All the presidential wives came to Italy during the three-day summit despite an open plea several weeks ago from a group of university women urging the wives of world leaders to boycott the summit to protest Berlusconi's behavior as demeaning to women.

"We feel deep indignation, as women committed to academics and culture, for the way women are treated in public and private by the Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi," they wrote.

Obama's staff refused to comment. Berlusconi denies doing anything wrong. However, the scandal that led to the potentially awkward tour Thursday has filled Italian tabloids for weeks.

Berlusconi, a 72-year-old billionaire, has often been in the middle of sordid stories about his relationships with women, none of which had threatened his political standing in Italy.

This spring, however, his wife said she was divorcing him after reports that her husband lavished attention on teenage women. Since then, there have been reports of him hosting young women at his estate in Sardinia, and photos of the women sunbathing and partying have surfaced on the Internet.

Normally happy to revel in the attention, Berlusconi was defiant several weeks ago. ''This is how I am,'' he said. ''I'm not going to change a thing. If they like me this way, they like me this way.''

His office went so far as to issue a statement warning the news media that they could face criminal and civil penalties under Italian law if they publish unauthorized photos of Berlusconi's private life during the summit.

President Giorgio Napolitano urged the media to stay away from the story, at least during the summit. "At this moment, my hope and my wish are for a truce in the controversies," he said.

Yet Berlusconi pressed the issue anew when he asked Carfagna to serve as his official hostess. The 33-year-old Carfagna was once named the "world's hottest" politician by the men's magazine Maxim.

On Friday, Obama will find herself in far different circumstances: she'll join her husband at the Vatican in Rome meeting Pope Benedict XVI, the spiritual leader of the world's Roman Catholics.

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